Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Because a Boy's Best Friend Is His Mother

1968 was a watershed year for horror movies. Two events occurred that would shape horror movies for decades to come. The first was the release of Night of the Living Dead, naturally. The second was the trial of Ed Gein. Gein was apprehended in 1957, but was found mentally incompetent to stand trial at the the time. By the time of his trial, Gein had already made inroads into the horror genre--Psycho is famously based on Gein, and the children of Psycho are legion--but the Gein's trial shook something loose in the minds of filmmakers, and soon the grislier details of Gein's crimes began to filter into the genre. The supernova of films based on Gein is The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974, of course, but another film based on Gein appeared the same year. Jeff Gillen and Alan Ormbsy's Deranged sticks closer to the facts of the case than any other film, and while it may not have the pile-driving horror of TCM, it has a weird ambiance all its own.

Ezra Cobb's crimes start with graverobbing. Unable to bear the loss of his mother, he digs her up and sets her corpse back in her long-time sick room. When one of his neighbors points tells Ez the function of newspaper obituaries, Ez begins to raid the cemetery for "parts." Mom, it seems, isn't holding up so well, so she requires maintenance. Of course, Ez doesn't stop there, and soon, he is set up with a date with the only woman his mother trusted (the others are whores who will give Ez syphilis, she says). When that woman comes on to Ez, he kills her. From there, there's no going back, and soon afterward, he begins abducting women, starting with the vivacious barmaid, Mary, for whom he wears his mother suit. Later, during hunting season, he shoots his neighbor's girlfriend, Sally. She hates hunting, but she works at a hardware store where guns and ammo are sold. Ez shoots her in the store, but he doesn't kill her. She wakes up in the back of his truck, and makes a run for it. Ez catches her and hangs her up in his barn like a deer ready to be dressed. Unfortunately for Ez, he's found in the act. Afterward, his neighbors burn his house to the ground.

Deranged has an eccentric story structure. While it follows the facts of the case in more or less chronological order, the movie is narrated by a fictional journalist played by Les Carlson, who shows up in-scene from time to time throughout the movie. This puts a vaguely post-modern sheen on the film, in spite of its grotty, drive-in exploitation look. The self-referential nature of the film also shows up in the film's occasional black humor. The filmmakers obviously have a great deal of affection for Ezra Cobb--the stand in for Gein--but it's as if they have to put a layer of irony between themselves and Gein, especially given the sheer ghastliness of what's on screen. Gein was famously a momma's boy of the worst sort, and this aspect of the story is occasionally played as a sick comedy. Oddly enough, the filmmakers choose not to play Gein's penchant for crossdressing for laughs, though, but that may have to do with the fact that in real life and in the movie, Gein dressed up in mother rather than as mother. There's a surprising duplication of imagery between Texas Chainsaw and Deranged. The central set piece in both films is a dinner party in which the guest honor is the current victim, though Deranged puts an emphatic stamp of "no exit" on its version.

Apart from the central conceit of the film, this has a flat, reportorial style. It doesn't indulge in any kind of expressionism, per se, but it has a measure of mood imparted by its chilly, winter time setting. It has the distinctive look of a one of the tax shelter horror films churned out in Canada during this time period, but it's a look that totally works for the film. As rural Gothics go, this pretty much nails it: it looks like a twisted re-imagining of a Grant Wood painting.

Deranged has a surprisingly low body count, but that's not surprising given the fidelity it shows to its source material. Gein only killed three people. He barely even qualifies as a serial killer, even though he stands as some kind of serial killer archetype these days. Deranged makes its murders hurt, though. It toys with the audience's expectation that there's an out for the victims, but its merciless in shutting that door.

The filmmakers are particularly fortunate in their choice of lead actors. One of the actors they auditioned for the role was Harvey Keitel, of all people, but they went with Roberts Blossom instead. Blossom plays Ezra Cobb with just the right note of craziness. He seems harmless to those around him, and Blossom gets this right, but when he's off his nut, he's totally scary. It's a bravura performance, one that's completely unexpected from this sector of filmmaking. But then, the movie proves smarter than the average exploitation film most of the time. All the while, the filmmakers studiously provide the grue the audience paid to see. Gein is good for that. As set pieces go, the scene with the ice cream scoop is pretty nasty, though it's one that gets omitted from some prints of the film (including the MGM disc linked below, unfortunately). Caveat emptor, I guess. Even abridged, Deranged is still a piece of work.

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